IEEFA Swamp Watch: Discord Within the Fossil-Fuel Industry Over What to Do Now

Wrangling, and Uncertainty, Over the Paris Agreement on Climate Change

The swamp is becoming quite the quagmire as arguments bubble up among coal, oil, and gas interests about whether the U.S. should withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

With the Trump administration in power, the fossil-fuel industry now has the keys to the kingdom. Yet its giants appear confused and in disarray. Whatever the White House decides to do energy-policy-wise won’t end the bickering, nor will it prevent the rest of the world from moving forward.

In concert with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the National Mining Association has taken the lead in opposing the Paris agreement. Some of the association’s leading members, including Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, argue that CO2 emissions are harmless and that the Paris accord is a wasteful policy mistake.

But other National Mining Association members say quite the opposite; that the U.S should not withdraw. “The future is foreign markets,” argue coal executives at Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy and Peabody Energy who say it is better for the U.S. to have a seat at the international bargaining table if only to curtail damage to their companies and industry.

This school of thought is informed by the potential for public money for technological research, support for low-emission plants, and funding from development banks for new coal-fired projects.

Interestingly, Kevin Crutchfield, the head of the National Mining Association and CEO of Contura Energy (formerly Alpha Natural Resources) is silent on the matter and perhaps embodies the industry contradiction. His company derives considerable revenue from export sales and he presumably wants to have a say in how the Paris rules are implement but is at the head of an organization that favors withdrawal.

There is more unity on the oil-and-gas side of the equation: ExxonMobil executives see commonly shared emissions targets as a way to bring orderly market and policy choices, in both emerging and advanced markets.

Left unspoken is the great boon to ExxonMobil’s natural gas business if the coal sector continues to shrink. Given projections of slower, less energy-intensive economic growth in most of the world, getting a leg up on a competitor in a tightening market is worth the fuss.

MEANWHILE, FROM THE BRACKISH WATERS OF WASHINGTON, ENERGY SECRETARY RICK PERRY has announced a study on grid reliability aimed at removing ”anti-coal bias” in the workings of the nation’s electricity grid.

Even by swamp standards, Perry’s plan seems like a hurried hack job to bolster politically motivated handouts to friends in the coal industry.

Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, speaking from above the muck in a letter to Perry, has expressed skepticism, highlighting the economic advantages of wind power and noting that Iowa’s largest utility relies on wind power for 55 percent of the electricity it supplies to homes and businesses. He also makes the point that wind power is cheap.

The senator reminds Secretary Perry, who has a history of memory lapses, that Texas achieved national prominence as a leader in wind-power investment when Perry was governor.

Grassley’s letter could’ve mentioned, although it did not, that Iowa now has 17,000 jobs in wind power, or that then-Governor Perry issued a report in 2014 that counted 28,000 jobs in the renewable sector in Texas. That report included a list of financially healthy renewable energy companies based in Texas, and reported that the outlook for the industry is positive.

Fossil fuel interests are now bumping up against the reality that it was never regulation, new rules, or presidential edicts that drove the fossil-fuel business. Profits were always built on digging for coal and drilling for oil and gas at the lowest possible cost and finding customers who would pay enough to cover operations, new investments and profits.

Government policy just gilded the lily with generous tax policy, slow environmental enforcement and protection against competitors.

None of the gilding matters now because the fundamentals have changed. The oil, gas and coal industries are battered today by flagging profits, bankruptcies and dreadful quarterly returns. The outlook for coal is bleak, the outlook for oil and gas negative.

The good customers are getting harder to find and harder to keep.

Whether the U.S. stays with the Paris accord or goes, traditional energy business models are in trouble, and the fight now is within the fossil-fuel sector itself. The uncertainty created by promises made and promises kept or unkept only deepens the quagmire.

Tom Sanzillo is IEEFA’s director of finance.

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